ASTORIA – Born and raised in Astoria and attending Public School 70, middle school IS 10 and William Cullen Bryant High School – which his Greek-American friends and colleagues Aravella Simotas and Councilman Costas Constantinides also attended – guaranteed that New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer had close Greek friends from a young age.
“The first Greek friend I had – we lived on 42nd Street off Newtown Road – was named Gus. I was a four- to six-year-old and they lived a few doors away,” he said.
So Van Bramer’s love for Astoria and Western Queens had a strong Greek dimension from the start, but he is also plugged into the diverse neighborhood’s strong Celtic element.
His father, William, is from Williamsburg and his mother Elizabeth was born in Maspeth and grew up in Corona, and the family is mostly Irish-American. They moved to Astoria in 1972 and Van Bramer is the fifth of eight children in a practicing Catholic family.
“My sister Kim and I played in St. Joseph’ fife and drum corps. We both played drums but not very well,” he said, but he loves music – pop is his favorite – and always is up dancing at the events he sponsors.
His public service spirit is firmly rooted in his parents’ activities. “My father was a newspaper printer – he printed the New York Times for over 30 years – and was active in the union.
”I remember being on picket lines with him, so I knew from an early age that I cared about working people and making sure they had benefits and the right to live with dignity.”
His mother worked in local supermarkets as she raised the children. “From them I learned a lot about the work ethic and fighting for working people.”
A number his other siblings are also in the helping professions, nursing, teaching, one managing homeless shelters. There were no restaurateurs, however, until his sister Debbie married Peter Pavlides, who has roots in Thessaloniki. They own and run a couple of restaurants in Connecticut and their five children were baptized at St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Church in Astoria.
“There were lots of parties at Zenon’s and other Greek restaurants.”
There will be more.
“My sister Dawn is engaged to be married to Nick Vartholomeos,” he said.
Luckily, he loves Greek food. “When we have Thanksgiving at Debbie’s there is lots of Greek food …and my friend George Stamatiades has taken me to a number of Greek restaurants through the years.
His favorites are lamb, and lemon potatoes – and he also likes Greek beer – quite a tribute from an Irish-American.
“I also had some amazing teachers who were Greek. Mrs. Pappas in 6th grade was one of the most beautiful and kind women I ever met. I had Mrs. Poulos later and in 1987 when I graduated Bryant High, where Irene Pappas was one of my best friends. Easily one third of the names in my yearbook are Greek,” Van Bramer told TNH.
He has yet to go to Greece, “but I’d love to go,” he said.
When his dreams of playing right wing for the Islanders didn’t pan out, he focused on politics.
Becoming a police officer was in the cards for the man who remains fit and is often seen riding his bicycle, as was becoming a lawyer. “I don’t think I had formulated running for office when I was younger,” he said.
He wasn’t one of those kids who found himself getting elected president of this and that group. “Believe it or not I was very shy,” said the now-ebullient politician who is now Majority Leader of the City Council.
The breakthrough came in college at St. John’s University. “I became very active in social causes, and that is where I came out as a gay man and that moved my political activism along. I was this working class Irish Catholic kid from Astoria and I always cared about social issues, but when I came out I realized the world was quite unfair at that time to gay and lesbian people, I had to do something about it.”
Among the early activists was his friend Dimitri Kotenoglou.
After graduation he began volunteering on political campaigns, including the 1991 City Council campaign of Tom Duane, who became the first openly gay person to be elected to the council.
“I figured it out then that I would run for office, but I wanted it to be in and around the neighborhood I grew up in,” he said.
Van Bramer made it to the City Council in 2009. His district covers Long Island City, Sunnyside and part of Astoria. He became majority leader in the heavily Democrat chamber in 2014, but he remains focused on his old neighborhood.
His priorities this year include funding culture and affordable housing.
As chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries he wants an increase in funding for museums, libraries and other cultural institutions that are important to Astoria.
He appreciated the area’s parks growing up, and making sure there is adequate green space in Western Queens is important, as is street safety.
Citywide issues with district implications are looming. “The mayor has an ambitious zoning and affordable housing plan that we are soon voting on…We want to make sure people can afford to live in the neighborhoods where they have resided for years,” especially the elderly.
He credits Mayor Bill de Blasio with advances in education, “Making sure every child has access to pre-K is a significant accomplishment.”
HILLARY WOULD BEAT TRUMP
When Super Tuesday was a day away, Van Bramer noted he endorses Hillary Clinton. “On the Republican side, it’s disappointing and disconcerting that Donald Trump has done so well…What Trump says flies in the face about what we know is true about Astoria, Queens, and New York: We are stronger because we have a large immigrant population and have a country that opens its arms to people fleeing persecution or seeking opportunity. I find some of his rhetoric really frightening and I hope the Republicans are smart enough to reject him, but if they are not, the nation will.” He thinks Hillary will win.